CULTURE

Alexander Newley on his work as an artist and growing with a Hollywood icon

He readily accepted the offer to be interviewed, but set one condition, that we also discuss his artwork. I agreed, naturally. And this was not a concession. Alexander Newley is an exceptional painter, renowned and very popular in the USA and UK for his beautiful landscapes and, primarily, stunning portraits, including ones by many celebrated figures such as Gore Vidal, Oliver Stone, Billy Wilder, John Barry and Christopher Reeve. However, media interest often strays from his artistic oeuvre to his personal life, which is probably inevitable, considering that Newley is Joan Collins’s only son, born from a love affair with – and marriage to – Anthony Newley, the Oscar-winning composer, actor and singer.

Just a few days ago, the 49-year-old spoke openly to The Times about his traumatic childhood years, to be presented in an autobiography that will be published by the end of the year under the title “Hollywood Child.” He admitted that although, like all children, he wanted to be close to his mother, she raised him from a distance, giving priority to her work. Alexander and his sister were raised by a nanny. “My mother wasn’t a monster, she was a narcissist. I can’t remember her hugging me,” he told the British newspaper, prompting sensationalist media around the world to relay and incorporate the statement as part of news stories that were anything but favorable for the 81-year-old star.

But where does the actual truth lie?

“The British press has a tendency to be quite acerbic,” commented Newley, clearly annoyed by the proportion the matter ended up taking on. “Some journalists have an agenda and they filter your words through that, they will pick and choose in order to build the story they need. They often exaggerate, making it very black and white. They have to sell papers and I understand that – we all have to sell. But my book is a three-dimensional truthful portrait. It helps you see the context in which my mother had to operate and understand her actions better.”

Let’s take the story from its beginning. Joan Collins married Anthony Newley in 1963, her second marriage, which she entered madly in love and willing to place her career on the back burner to focus on family. “Ι thought he would make a good father, even though he had warned me he didn’t think he could remain faithful. How silly I was to ignore his warnings…” Collins confessed to the Daily Mail a few years ago. In the same year that they married, the couple had a daughter, Tara, and, two years later, a son, Alexander, who they affectionately called Sacha. But the problems did not take long to emerge. By the end of the 60s, the romance had gone. They divorced in 1971. The children, inevitably, found themselves drawn into a storm…

“There is no such thing as an easy childhood. We all have our horrid stories. Even the lucky ones who say, ‘My father and mother always loved each other’ will have experienced some other tragedy in their lives. We all carry a certain amount of heartbreak. That’s just how life is,” said Newley. “So, yes, having a famous parent? I wouldn’t advise it! [laughs] – they’re very busy with themselves, building a career, an impact on the world. A child ideally wants to feel that it is at the center of its parents’ universe, but they are unable to be fully present…”

This is precisely what occurred with Alexander. He felt abandoned. A few years ago, the artist painted his “Self-Portrait with Happy Family.” In the painting, he depicts himself through two roles: one in the foreground, as a happy child playing on the lawn with his parents, and the other in the background as a sad adult observer. “The painting was based on a photograph taken a few months before my parents divorced,” he explained. “I found it and, looking at it, realized that I did not remember anything of this family – it was a stranger to me. I don’t remember my father and mother being together. I wanted to somehow paint my way back into that moment and be present for that family in some way. I assumed the role of the spectator looking on, because this is how I feel every time I think about my childhood years – I am there and I am not there. I want to get in touch with it but I can’t…”

Following the divorce, Joan Collins left with her children for Los Angeles. “She had been married to a very famous and wealthy man, and suddenly found herself alone. She had to return to her career and struggle to rebuild it. It was difficult,” her only son recalled. As for his memories of his father, Newley has maintained very warm and tender feelings, as I realized during the interview. ”My father was a great artist. He understood the tragic and the comic aspects of life so deeply. I miss his outlook on life and his delicious sense of humor. He always made me laugh. And he respected my intelligence. Even when I was a little boy, he spoke to me as an equal about everything. He was a wise man, but, at times, his passions and emotions led him to… destructive avenues.”

Anthony Newley passed away in 1999, at the age of 67, struck by cancer. In 2005, his son completed his final portrait of Anthony Newley, “Farewell to Prospero,” which he had posed for a few months prior to his death.

Newley returned from several years of living and working in New York and exhibiting all over the USA, to settle again in London, where he is planning several exhibitions as well as the release of his autobiography. He has a 10-year-old daughter, Ava Grace, from his former marriage, who has inherited her father’s talent for painting, and for whom Joan Collins is “a wonderful grandmother.” Time has blunted the sharp edges of his ties with his mother. ??? He does not hide that. “My relationship with my mother is good, it’s constantly evolving. Of course it’s something that we work hard on. Even nowadays we are still learning a lot about each other.” Do they discuss the past? “We do. I like these discussions. But my mother prefers to live her life rather than think and talk about it. I wish l were like her myself!”

Would his artwork have been different if his life were different, that is, if he had had a happier childhood? “Definitely. The reason you paint is to find meaning in your own life – usually what’s missing. And the relationship between work and your very own life is close and deep…”

I informed him of how popular the TV series “Dynasty” was in Greece, and how despised a character Alexis Carrington was. “Are there any similarities between his mother and the devil of a woman she portrayed?” I asked. “Yes, they are very similar, in terms of power. My mother is as strong as Alexis but not as mean as her! She wins over in vulnerability and sweetness,” he responded, laughing. “And, you know what? The reason she was so good as that character is because her own life has been so full of challenges. She married five times, has had enormous ups and downs, and learnt to adjust and survive.”

Passionate admirer of Greece

Alexander Newley nostalgically recalled his first holiday on Crete at the age of 13. “I had fallen in love with a local Cretan girl. It was extremely romantic.”

Two “magical summers” on Hydra followed. Newley adores Greece and has studied the country’s history. “It’s natural for anybody interested in culture. Everything began in your country,” he stressed. Responding to a hypothetical question on who his subject would be if he had the opportunity to paint anyone, living or dead, who has ever existed, Alexander remarked Homer, after Shakespeare. “The fascinating thing about him is that we don’t know if he was an actual human being or an imaginary figure, to give body to poetry of his time.” To date, two Greek myths, those of Icarus and Theseus and the Minotaur, have featured in Newley’s work. He did not hide his desire to revisit Greece at some point, this time for work-related reasons. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll be given the opportunity to create a series of portraits of Greeks. It would be a great pleasure…”

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Characteristic works by the artist may be viewed at www.alexandernewley.com.